Neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama Swap Insights on Meditation

An encounter with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the scientific study of meditation


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Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.

This line from Herman Hesse's 1922 novel Siddhartha came unbidden to me during a recent weeklong visit to Drepung Monastery in southern India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had invited the U.S.-based Mind and Life Institute to familiarize the Tibetan Buddhist monastic community living in exile in India with modern science. About a dozen of us—physicists, psychologists, brain scientists and clinicians, leavened by a French philosopher—introduced quantum mechanics, neuroscience, consciousness and various clinical aspects of meditative practices to a few thousand Buddhist monks and nuns. As we lectured, we were quizzed, probed and gently made fun of by His Holiness, who sat beside us [see photograph above]. We learned as much from him and his inner circle—such as from his translator, Tibetan Jinpa Thupten, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, and from the French monk Matthieu Ricard, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Pasteur Institute in Paris—as they and their brethren from us.

What passed between these representatives of two distinct intellectual modes of thinking about the world were facts, data—knowledge. That is, knowledge about the more than two-millennia-old Eastern tradition of investigating the mind from the inside, from an interior, subjective point of view, and the much more recent insights provided by empirical Western ways to probe the brain and its behavior using a third-person, reductionist framework. What the former brings to the table are scores of meditation techniques to develop mindfulness, concentration, insight, serenity, wisdom and, it is hoped, in the end, enlightenment. These revolve around a daily practice of quiet yet alert sitting and letting the mind settle before embarking on a specific program, such as “focused attention” or the objectless practice of generating a state of “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” After years of daily contemplative exercise—nothing comes easily in meditation—practitioners can achieve considerable control over their mind.

Twelve years of schooling, four years of college and an even longer time spent in advanced graduate training fail to familiarize our future doctors, soldiers, engineers, scientists, accountants and politicians with such techniques. Western universities do not teach methods to enable the developing or the mature mind to become quiet and to focus its considerable powers on a single object, event or train of thought. There is no introductory class on “Focusing the Mind.” And this is to our loss!

From introspection, we are all familiar with the mental clutter, the chatter that makes up our daily life. It is a rapid fire of free associations, of jumping from one image, speech fragment or memory to the next. Late-night lucubrations are particularly prone to such erratic zigzagging. Focusing on a single line of argument or thought requires deliberate, laborious and conscious effort from which we flee. We prefer to be distracted by external stimuli, conversations, radio, television or newspapers. Desperate not to be left alone within our mind, to avoid having to think, we turn to our constant electronic companions to check for incoming messages.

Yet here we had His Holiness, a 77-year-old man, who sat during six days, ramrod straight for hours on end, his legs tucked under his body, attentively following our arcane scholarly arguments. I have never experienced a single man, and an entire community, who appeared so open, so content, so happy, constantly smiling, yet so humble, as these monks who, by First World standards, live a life of poverty, deprived of most of the things we believe are necessary to live a fully realized life. Their secret appears to be mind control.

Among the more extreme cases of mind control is the self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963 to protest the repressive regime in South Vietnam. What was so singular about this event, captured in haunting photographs that are among the most readily recognized images of the 20th century, was the calm and deliberate nature of his heroic act. While burning to death, Duc remained throughout in the meditative lotus position. He never moved a muscle or uttered a sound, as the flames consumed him and his corpse finally toppled over.

I am filled with utter bewilderment in the face of this singular event and would have found it difficult to accept as real, were it not captured in the testimony of hundreds of onlookers, including jaundiced journalists with their cameras.

This article was originally published with the title "The Brain of Buddha."

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